How The Chiefs And Niners Became The Last NFL Teams Standing

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): And just like that, we’ve got ourselves a Super Bowl.

It would have been hard for the conference championship games to match the chaos of the first two rounds of playoff action — though about 10 minutes into the Kansas City-Tennessee game, I thought the Titans might actually take out the No. 2 seed (along with the Nos. 1 and 3 they had already dispatched). But Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs rallied again. What stood out to you guys about that game?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): That the Titans, stealing a line from “The Untouchables,” brought a knife to a gun fight.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): That Derrick Henry is basically just a guy, and that Mahomes is not just a guy.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Too much K.C. offense, too much Mahomes.

Salfino: Mahomes now has 11 TDs and 0 picks in the postseason. He has the highest QB rating in postseason history since the merger.8

joshua.hermsmeyer: Two moments stood out to me in particular:

One was the Titans’ last drive right before the half. They needed to run clock, and it was Henry time. They got predictable and had to give the ball back to Mahomes before the half (he scored), and then K.C. got the ball again after halftime.

The other was the third-and-1 where holding was called, and Henry still got stuffed.

neil: In general, the Chiefs were able to slow down the Titan running game like no team really has recently. Tennessee’s rushing expected points added in the game was -0.1 compared with average. That stopped a streak of nine straight games where they had been positive, and often significantly so.

Salfino: When it came to stopping Henry, the Chiefs, who allowed 4.9 yards per rush during the regular season, just threw numbers at the problem. Remember, a team with a top QB like the Chiefs should be built to stop the pass, not the run. They don’t care about stopping the run because they are generally playing ahead. But Sunday, the Chiefs did. They committed to it.

You can do that against the run and it works. You can’t really throw numbers at the problem of stopping the QB.

neil: Of course, K.C. did do some Andy Reid-ish things late in the game to try to let the Titans back into it…

sara.ziegler: Clock management just shouldn’t be so hard.

neil: Mahomes is so good that bad clock management can’t thwart his Super Bowl aspirations.

Salfino: Mahomes bailed Reid out of horrible clock management with 20 seconds to go in the half by running in that TD.

That was classic Reid.

neil: And then late in the game they just refused to either: a) force Tennessee to stay in bounds to run clock, or b) not stop the clock when they had the ball.

sara.ziegler: I get that teams built to pass sometimes keep passing in end-of-game situations just because it’s what they do best. But man, they really kept stopping the clock!

neil: Luckily they got that defensive pass interference call!

Salfino: I thought the game was over as soon as the Chiefs went up double digits. Everything after that was garbage time.

neil: Certainly that took the Titans away from their run-heavy focus and made Ryan Tannehill more than a caretaker.

sara.ziegler: What did you guys think of how Tannehill played?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought he played well. They went back to their strength, the play-action (0.41 EPA per play-action pass play), and he kept them in the game at the very least.

Salfino: Tannehill was OK. Not as good as his rating. He could not make a play to stop the Chiefs momentum.

neil: He did his best — and man did he take some licks at times.

sara.ziegler:

neil:

sara.ziegler: That was maybe my favorite moment of the game, tbh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Momentum is a hard thing to stop, considering it’s impossible to measure or define.

I thought Tannehill’s QBR of 74 accurately reflected his play. And his QBR of 86 on play-action passes was very good.

Salfino: It’s interesting with Tannehill and the Titans. We reflexively say after a run like the Titans had, “They’ll be back.” No, they won’t.

Tannehill is a free agent — I’m fairly certain he’ll be back, but do you give him a long-term deal at franchise money or just franchise him for $30 million (or whatever) in 2020? I opt for the latter. That’s almost a guarantee you don’t have Tannehill in 2021 though.

sara.ziegler: So was this just lightning in a bottle for them, Mike?

Salfino: The Titans have two football freaks on offense in Henry and A.J. Brown who have really no other physical comparables. But the defense is bad. They don’t have a high draft pick. They have no long-term plan that I can see at QB unless you believe Tannehill is good. (I do not.) And their approach to football is antediluvian.

neil: “Antediluvian”!

LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: The pre-flood games were lit.

neil: Noah was BIG on smash-mouth football.

Salfino: I learned that word from Josh.

When he’s flaming the “run to win” Twitter trolls.

neil: To be fair, there was one team that Ran to Win on Sunday … but I am sure we will get to the Niners soon enough.

Salfino: Do you guys think that Mahomes would have been great no matter where he landed, or that he landed in the perfect place (or both)?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think he landed in a good spot, but there’s no denying that he’s a special talent.

But my take is that every QB, if he’s any good, is a system QB.

Salfino: I just have a hard time assessing true skill level in football as opposed to baseball, which is so pure in this regard. It’s more tools in football, I guess. Mahomes sure has them.

sara.ziegler: A little website I like to follow told me that Mahomes had a pretty ideal situation to start out in.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That guy Neil seems to know his stuff. Sharp fellow.

neil: LOL

I think it’s fair to say he has exceeded expectations, though, even given his coaching and supporting cast.

sara.ziegler: I’m pretty sure Mahomes’s path to greatness all started with his early experience around the Minnesota Twins clubhouse:

neil: Yesssss

Or his Little League World Series experience (hat-tip to designer Emily Scherer for this find):

Salfino: Um…

neil: This is how good Mahomes is. Not even the Mets’ curse can stop him.

sara.ziegler: LOL

So let’s move on to the NFC game … which was decidedly less exciting.

neil: Pretty exciting for San Francisco fans, at least.

sara.ziegler: Well, sure.

neil: And Aaron Rodgers haters.

sara.ziegler: And Packer haters.

😬

neil: LOL, jinx.

Salfino: The 1972 Dolphins are always so touchy about their place in history and about people remembering them. But this is really the postseason of the 1972 Dolphins. Or that era’s Dolphins teams. The Titans started it, and then the people who want that style of football just latched on to the Niners. San Francisco had the third-fewest passing attempts (eight) in a postseason game since the merger. Miami had the others. Note that all but one team with fewer than 15 attempts won their games. (Just don’t throw the ball, and you’ll win!)

sara.ziegler: Jimmy Garoppolo with just six completions was definitely my favorite stat of the day.

neil: And Raheem Mostert had the second-most rushing yards by anybody in a playoff game ever!

So much history (that Green Bay was on the receiving end of).

Salfino: You need to find a back who can run to the Super Bowl either at the top of the draft or on the punt coverage team after he’s been cut a half-dozen times. Take your pick.

neil: 😂

joshua.hermsmeyer: I had no dog in the fight, but the game was an object lesson in the old football saw that you have to stop the run to win. Mostert averaged 10 yards per carry on his first 19 attempts. That’s far too many long run plays. It looked like high school ball out there.

neil: The Packer run defense had zero answers for it.

Salfino: I don’t remember a team running that often and that easily ever. There was almost no resistance. I guess we have to credit the Niners’ scheme and blocking.

sara.ziegler: I’m a little confused about how that happened, though. The Packers were bad against the run during the regular season, but not the worst in the league, by any means. Football Outsiders had their run defense at 23rd in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.

Salfino: Kyle Shanahan is a chip off the old block — Mike Shanahan was finding running backs in the recycling bin with the Broncos and turning them into All-Pros, even after Terrell Davis (a sixth-round pick who also made his bones on special teams).

Someone told me once that defense doesn’t matter. Offense controls outcomes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The why is always hard without a lot of tape study. But it sure seemed like Shanahan saw a structural flaw in the Green Bay defense and exploited it again and again.

Salfino: How many times have the Packers faced a fullback and a tight end who can block like George Kittle? This is what is tricky about defensive stats, seriously.

neil: And it bears mentioning that the Packers are sort of built this way deliberately. No team spent a higher share of the cap on offense this year, and it’s not even close.

A lot of that is tied up in Rodgers’s massive contract as well. But Rodgers and the offense couldn’t really get rolling at all when the game was still in reach.

(The many turnovers didn’t help.)

sara.ziegler: That has to worry Packer fans long-term. We’ve talked about Rodgers’s “eliteness,” but is he kind of done?

Salfino: Rodgers gave hope to the people who still believe in the greatness — which has objectively faded since 2014 — with a bunch of garbage-time numbers.

neil: Well, he did statistically outplay Jimmy G in the raw numbers, LOL.

(Obviously those numbers are very misleading for the reason you said, Mike.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Rodgers was average all season long. I think he’s a player you can win with, and might still have sparks of greatness left. Think late-career John Elway as the very top range of outcomes, if the entire team is reshaped around a different philosophy.

Like, imagine Rodgers in a system that asked him to make the throws Tannehill was asked to make this season.

Salfino: I will say it again: Rodgers has ironically turned into Alex Smith, his lifetime nemesis from back in the 2005 draft.

sara.ziegler: Can I just rant for a second about that dumb narrative about Rodgers seeking revenge on the Niners for not taking him No. 1? It’s not like every other team was lining up to take him as their first pick either. He fell to No. 24, for Pete’s sake!

neil: Also, it was 15 years ago. Get over it already.

sara.ziegler: ^^^ THIS

Salfino: The Niners always kick Rodgers’s ass in the postseason, too.

neil: By running the ball down the Packers’ throats, usually.

ESPN’s Stats & Information Group had a stat where San Francisco has averaged 258.3 rushing yards and three rushing TDs per game in three playoff wins vs. Rodgers.

Salfino: Well, there was that Colin Kaepernick game where he ran for about 1,000 and threw for 1,000.

neil: Right.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Coming back to more recent history, I have another thought on the Niners game: It was smart of the 49ers to hide Jimmy G. I think they should continue to do so in the Super Bowl, if they can.

Salfino: But they won’t be able to, Josh. I’m sure you agree.

Mahomes doesn’t let you run to win.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, they won’t. And I think it’s why K.C. will win, and probably pretty easily.

neil: This is low-key one of the biggest QB mismatches in Super Bowl history.

Salfino: I think the spread should be 5. It was 2.5. Now it’s 1.5. All the retired head coach money coming in on the Niners.

neil: (We say K.C. -3.5, for what it’s worth.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Richard Sherman is not going to be able to run with Tyreek Hill.

Salfino: Darrelle Revis doesn’t think so. Tyreek is going to have a huge game — 200 yards, I predict. He’s going to break the way the Niners prefer to play defense. Or Travis Kelce will have about 150. Pick your poison.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right, if you go to a zone scheme with safety help for Sherman, then Kelce could be a big problem underneath.

sara.ziegler: Will the Niner pass rush affect Mahomes? He had all day long to throw on Sunday — I can’t imagine that will continue against Nick Bosa and Co.

Salfino: Mahomes’s sack rate is the most underrated thing about his game. It was 3.4 percent this year and down from 2018. It’s 2.8 percent for this postseason. Yes, the Niners have the best rush the Chiefs will have faced, but Mahomes won’t be getting sacked 10 percent of the time or so, which would swing this game to the Niners, IMO. I’d expect 5 percent — so two or three sacks.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners get above-average pressure with just their front four, so I think Mahomes will not be too comfortable. But we saw at the end of the half vs. the Titans what he’s capable of if you let him loose running as well.

Salfino: Mahomes is such a decisive runner for someone who does not run a lot. He had 53 rushing yards in each of the past two games, and he has only exceeded that number twice in his career in the regular season.

sara.ziegler: What other matchups in the Super Bowl are you guys excited to see?

neil: I will say that K.C.’s run defense is suspect, even after they performed a lot better against Tennessee. That might play into San Francisco’s strengths some.

The Chiefs ranked 29th in rushing defense DVOA this season.

Salfino: The 49ers could hurt the Chiefs in the passing game if they cross them up by being more aggressive and designing their game plan to score 30 points, which I think is essential for them to win. If they think they are going to ride their defense and running game to victory, they are sadly mistaken. I’m assuming Shanahan is too smart to think that, though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Early on, the Niners offensive line vs. the Chiefs run defense should be telling. San Francisco will need that to be another home run, much like the Green Bay game.

Salfino: But Neil, don’t you discount their season ranking given how they just shut down Henry, who was supposedly unstoppable? I just believe that if you want to stop the run badly enough, you can.

neil: So will the key to the Super Bowl be whether Garoppolo is better than Tannehill???

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s the question!

neil: (Um … is he?)

(LOL)

Salfino: I think Garoppolo is better than Tannehill, but I have very low confidence in the accuracy of that opinion.

Deebo Samuel and George Kittle are very serious weapons, though. I think the Niners forgot Manny Sanders was on the team yesterday. But he’s fine.

sara.ziegler: When Kittle was on the stage at the end, holding the trophy, I was like, “Oh, yeah — him!”

LOL

Salfino: Kittle did have 17 targets in the loss to Atlanta. That seems impossible now. Both the targets and the losing to Atlanta.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

joshua.hermsmeyer:

sara.ziegler: Oh, no.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kittle is all that’s good and wonderful about football.

sara.ziegler: So let’s wrap up our final Slack chat of the season (not including our live blog the night of the Super Bowl) with our predictions.

Are you three all taking the Chiefs???

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes!

Salfino: Chiefs 34, Niners 17.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow, even a score.

sara.ziegler: You think the Niners are going to give up roughly the same number of points as the Titans, but score less?

Salfino: I’m 5-5 in the playoffs now! Feeling it!

neil: I’m gonna be a little more conservative than Mike. Chiefs 24, Niners 21.

joshua.hermsmeyer: 28-13

sara.ziegler: Neil stays true to the model, to the very end.

Salfino: Hahaha

neil: Ehhhh, my O/U of 45 now feels a bit low. Can I make it 27-24? LOL

sara.ziegler: Nope

neil: Awww 😔

sara.ziegler: OK, fine.

Salfino: 27.5-24.

neil: Ooooh

I like how somebody on the FOX pregame picked a half-point margin. I think it was Howie.

They were like, YOU CAN’T DO THAT!

Salfino: I think this game is going to be very tribal. There is a football philosophy on the line for the old-school types. So I bet that, as was the case with the Titans, ex-players and coaches will pick the Niners in the game.

sara.ziegler: All right, I can’t let us all have the same picks.

So I have to take the Niners.

neil: It helps that you also took them in our Hot Takedown Super Bowl Draft episode! (Many, many weeks ago!)

sara.ziegler: Very true — gotta stick with my teams to the bitter end.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nice work!

sara.ziegler: 49ers 29, Chiefs 28.

Salfino: Niners win on a 2-point conversion in the final seconds.

neil: Running it in, naturally.

sara.ziegler: But really, I just want a good game. We deserve a good game for the Super Bowl.

I’m like Rob Lowe out here, just rooting for everyone:

neil: “Go League! Protect the Shield! Wooo!”

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

What To Make Of A Wild Wild-Card Weekend

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The NFL’s wild-card weekend was magnificent chaos. It was the first year since 1991 that all four games finished within one score — and despite the many things that one-score games can mean, all of these games were legitimately close. And entertaining!

Let’s start with the upset that none of us saw coming: the Minnesota Vikings beating the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. Can I just respond to all analysis in this chat with GIFs of Kirk Cousins yelling “You like that?”

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): LOL

Do you get to do that, though? You specifically didn’t Like That, for most of the season.

sara.ziegler: I’ve changed my mind.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Hahaha

To his credit, Cousins made a play — and Drew Brees could not really put anything together all game. You want to give credit to the Vikings defense, though, given how well Brees finished the season. Michael Thomas was barely a factor. The Vikings dared the Saints to beat them with Taysom Hill.

I think a story of this weekend is whether a quarterback in his 40s can be relied on in the postseason. Or maybe Brees randomly had a bad game. He seemed to miss a lot of open receivers, though.

sara.ziegler: Well, a quarterback in his 40s did win the Super Bowl last year

Salfino: Sort of. He certainly won the AFC Championship game.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): And Taysom Hill is 29, so…

neil: To be fair, the Vikings’ pass defense has been really coming on recently. Over their past six games, they’re holding opposing pass offenses to an average of 10.6 expected points added (EPA) below their usual output per game.

And they held New Orleans 11.9 EPA below their norm.

Salfino: But then you look and see that Brees completed 78.8 percent of his passes. But for just 8.0 yards per completion and no big plays. This was the one game where you wanted Sean Payton to use Hill more; usually I scream at the TV when he does it. And what does that tell you about Brees?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nothing for me at least. He’s old, but he was his normal, excellent self all year.

neil: Btw Josh, that is so funny about Hill being almost 30. Commentators can’t stop talking about him like he’s this young, exciting new player, the next generation of Saints QBs after Brees.

He’s already at (or past) prime age for QBs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right, if his talent was so game-changing we would probably have seen more of it sooner. Or maybe the NFL is just really conservative and slow to change. I suppose both can be true.

Salfino: You would think that if Payton was going to turn to Hill post-Brees, like the announcers say, he would have done it this year when Brees was hurt.

sara.ziegler: Why use Hill when you have Teddy Bridgewater?!?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Teddy would have led the receiver better:

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: The other thing about this game was that Alvin Kamara, who was maybe still hurt, could not make any of those big plays that had been a signature in prior years. He had zero 100-yard rushing games this year, just 21 yards on Sunday, and he’s averaged under 6.0 yards per catch in seven of his last eight games (just 4.3 vs. the Vikings).

sara.ziegler: What do we make of Cousins’s performance?

Salfino: Cousins erased a lifetime of narrative with one play. At least until next week.

neil: Does it, as Kyle Rudolph suggested after the game, put to rest the notion that Cousins can’t perform in big games?

sara.ziegler: It does not.

Salfino: No, it doesn’t. It’s not like he was aces from start to finish.

sara.ziegler: He made one great throw.

It was a beautiful throw, but it was one throw.

Salfino: It really was an amazing throw and catch. I was worried that the best of Adam Thielen was behind us, too, and he was vintage Sunday after really a nothing, injury-plagued year.

neil: Cousins played pretty well though! His 77.8 QBR was second only to Russell Wilson this weekend.

sara.ziegler: I mean, no QBs really played great this weekend, so that seems like faint praise, Neil.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I guess my frustration with Cousins bashers is that the complaint has always been that he can’t make that one throw, when his numbers say that he can and does all the time. So I think we have to just pack the whole “can’t win in the big games” narrative into a tight little ball and fire it into the sun.

Salfino: I think it’s fair to say that in the big games, Cousins plays too conservatively and doesn’t make the throw like he made to Thielen. The thing that is frustrating about Cousins is that he can make all the throws, the big-time, tight-window ones, but seems to hold back and check down too much. Plus, his coach acts like he doesn’t believe in him: Look at all the third-and-longs he was put into with early-down runs.

sara.ziegler: Look, I’m thrilled that he won this one, and I hate narratives, too. But he has not typically performed all that well when the big games were on the line. So I’m gonna need more than one success to change my mind.

Oh, wait, I already said I changed my mind.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Vikings fans, smh.

neil: You have to fight anecdotal, small-sample evidence with more anecdotal, small-sample evidence.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Only takes one time to prove never wrong.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: So true!

sara.ziegler: Anyone want to argue about the last play of the game? Should there have been offensive pass interference there?

neil: NO.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m fine with the no-call.

neil: It would have been ludicrous to do anything other than what they actually did.

Salfino: If they called it on the field, I could have lived with it. But to make it via replay would have been a joke. Now, it’s difficult for me to process why I think that. Maybe it’s just my anti-replay bias.

neil: That’s not bias; the (non-) call on the field specifically should take precedence!

sara.ziegler: They haven’t called that kind of contact all season, so it would have been ridiculous to call it there, in my unbiased opinion.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There was, I believe, a 6-inch height discrepancy between the receiver and defender, and P.J. Williams was giving away 70 pounds to Kyle Rudolph. The play wasn’t won or lost by the limited contact.

The real scandal was a fade route winning a game for anyone.

sara.ziegler: LOL, fair

neil: A generation of the fade route being broken in Madden has forever ruined the play. Bring back NFL 2K’s beautiful fade ball trajectories!

(Also, just like bring back 2K, period.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, Neil.

sara.ziegler: The other big upset of the weekend was Tennessee ending New England’s season — and maybe Tom Brady’s career there.

You know who the only member of this chat to correctly call that game was???

neil: I have a guess.

Salfino: Um, not me?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I shouldn’t have doubted Lord Tannehill, erm, Derrick Henry.

Salfino: I figured that Henry would run to nowhere, and Ryan Tannehill would spit the bit in the big spot, and that basically happened. What I did not see, but should have been obvious based on the entire season, was that Brady wouldn’t be able to generate points — even against a very inviting Tennessee defense. This game is over, IMO, if the Patriots score that touchdown in the second quarter after first-and-goal at the 1. That was the fatal error.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Edelman drop at the end seemed to take the energy out of Brady and the team as well.

Salfino: Guys, how does EPA say that Tannehill contributed more to the Titans win than Henry?

neil: EPA hates rushing?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, not everyone doing analytics hates Henry.

Salfino: Where is the truth? Are those of us who watched the game and believe that the Titans could not have possibly won without Henry — that Henry was by far the MVP of the game — just wrong?

neil: IDK. Passing is inherently more valuable than rushing, so it kinda makes sense that a great rushing game would only be equal to an OK passing game. But Tannehill had a 38.8 QBR, so … not exactly OK.

The bigger takeaway might be that the Pats offense — and Brady’s performance, specifically — is broken.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s the conclusion we can all sort of agree on.

If you told Bill Belichick coming into the game that he’d give up 200 rushing yards but only 14 points, I think he’d take it.

neil: Including the wild-card game, the Pats’ passing offense was above average by EPA (adjusted for opponent) just once in their last nine games.

Salfino: Brady is not coming back from this. It’s been all year, basically. I know there are excuses, but Brady used to rise above excuses. He couldn’t really even manage that game.

neil: That’s the thing for me, Mike. A lot of Brady’s whole career mythos has been about rising above scattershot receiving groups. He has made due much better with worse in the past.

(He also had the King of Making QBs Look Good for a brief, magical spell, but that’s a different tale for a different time.)

sara.ziegler: So will Brady play again?

Salfino: I would hope that if he doesn’t come back to the Patriots, he just retires. Seeing him like this for the Chargers would be silly.

neil: Well, who would the Pats get who’s better than Brady at this point?

ELI??????

(Fingers crossed.)

Salfino: Would Eli be an upgrade over Brady? Nah.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Brady should retire, but I believe he will come back if the coaching staff stays intact and they add a stud receiver.

Salfino: Other than Los Angeles, where would he go? And Philip Rivers had 7.8 yards per attempt this year and is probably not finished at all. At least according to that stat, he has a lot more in the tank than Brady does.

sara.ziegler: Hard to picture Brady anywhere else, for sure.

neil: Could the Broncos bring in both Peyton Manning and Brady (and Flacco!) in the span of a few years? Maybe they can also someday get Nick Foles and Russell Wilson, to acquire every Super Bowl-winning QB from 2012-2018.

Salfino: The Broncos are seemingly very happy with Lock, as is football twitter.

sara.ziegler: The other upset of the weekend — according to Elo, at least — was Seattle over Philly, though that one wasn’t nearly as shocking as the other two.

Elo, of course, couldn’t have known that Carson Wentz would get knocked out of the game.

Salfino: I feel so bad for Wentz. That was a very dirty play, in real time.

You could tell something was wrong when he got up. All running QBs should be petrified by the refs saying after the game that the hit by Jadeveon Clowney was perfectly legit because Wentz was a runner.

neil: But it was good to see Seattle up to their usual tricks again, barely beating a team led by a 40-year-old literal high school football coach playing on one leg by game’s end.

“You don’t think we can keep it close with THESE guys? Then you don’t know us!”

joshua.hermsmeyer: A comfortable win? Seattle would never.

Salfino: Yeah, why were the Seahawks running so much? Fourteen first-down runs for 19 yards and only nine pass attempts from Wilson. They just refuse to use Wilson like they should. They should have tried to blow the Eagles out.

sara.ziegler: The Seahawks can’t help themselves — they just have to run.

Interesting that the score of Sunday’s game was exactly the same as the November matchup between these two two.

neil: 17-9 is exactly the kind of game these teams play.

Salfino: This was the JV team though.

neil: The Eagles also played a 17-9 game against the Cowboys between their 17-9 games against Seattle! The Seahawks or Eagles (or both) have been involved in each of the NFL’s last four 17-9 games. #FunFact

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m glad Seattle won so we can see this rematch.

Salfino: The Packers are like the Seahawks. This is the Pythagorean Win Bowl. I mean, look at Green Bay’s differential: 63 points. They should have won nine to 10 games.

neil: Back in my day, playoff teams blew out weak opposition.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right?

Salfino: I think the big reason for Green Bay’s point differential is that since 2014, Aaron Rodgers has slowly turned into Alex Smith.

Rodgers treats interception risk like it’s plutonium.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think I’m rooting for Green Bay to implode so the McCarthy redemption is fully realized.

sara.ziegler: LOLOLOL

So let’s talk about the other playoff game, which might have been the most entertaining: Houston came back to beat Buffalo in a game that really set the tone for the whole wild weekend.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That game was nuts. Best game of the weekend, by far.

neil: Poor Buffalo. 😔

Salfino: This sums up my view on that game and Josh Allen:

sara.ziegler: Mike, I actually LOL’d when I saw that tweet.

I read it out loud to my husband and couldn’t stop laughing.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Peak Salfino.

Salfino: He seemed to go crazy at the end of that game. The lateral in that spot was maybe the most reckless play I’ve ever seen, adjusting for game situation.

And then he missed the easy throws in the second half, too, after playing flawlessly in the first half. Allen is all tools, no toolbox.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The opening drive was so creative and bold, and it showcased all the best parts of Allen’s game (like catching TDs instead of throwing them — hey-o). When he was forced to stand and throw, things got more dicey, and it was clear — to me at least — that Buffalo wasn’t heading deep into the playoffs with Allen playing at that level.

sara.ziegler: I’m still so confused about why Buffalo went away from that.

Salfino: You mean running Allen more, Sara? I agree. Also, way too much Frank Gore in that game for Buffalo.

The question for the Bills is whether you can learn accuracy. I can’t think of many (if any) examples, though. I think it’s like free-throw shooting, in that when you are bad early in your career, you usually don’t get much better.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Devin Singletary was a beast! So difficult to tackle.

I was getting frustrated on Houston’s behalf.

Salfino: The Bills have done a great job containing Singletary all year.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: Maybe the best Buffalo can hope for is that Allen becomes Andre Drummond, who had a 38 percent free-throw percentage in his first five NBA seasons and has improved to 60 percent since then.

But 60 percent still ain’t great. And Allen still ain’t accurate.

sara.ziegler: Were you at all impressed with Houston’s comeback? Or was this mostly about Buffalo’s collapse?

Salfino: Yeah, Allen’s collapse. But it wasn’t exactly shocking. Neither was Deshaun Watson eventually finding something.

neil: It seemed like a “here we go again” moment for Houston, harking back to their flop against Indy last season.

But they eventually flipped that script.

Salfino: Now Watson gets Will Fuller back, and he’s totally different with him, as is the entire Houston offense. So they could keep up with the Chiefs in Week 19, I think. I’m not predicting it, but it’s possible, despite how well the Chiefs D has played of late.

sara.ziegler: What a good segue into our predictions!

We did NOT do well last week, guys.

neil: In related news, home teams did NOT do well.

Home games are supposed to be a HUGE advantage in the NFL playoffs. Not so much last weekend.

sara.ziegler: Mike was 0-4, Neil was 1-3, and Josh and I were 2-2.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I enjoy this result. Ice up, Mike.

Salfino: OMG, 0-4? Sad. I was right on the Bills, but the game was wrong.

This is what I tell my bookie every week.

OK — on to Cincinnati.

sara.ziegler: So can we do better this week? Who y’all got?

joshua.hermsmeyer: BAL – KC – SF – SEA.

neil: Ugh, I gotta go chalk again. SF, BAL, KC, GB. Too many wide spreads because of all these damn upsets.

Salfino: BAL-KC-SF-GB (even though the weather forecast at Lambeau is not bad). Baltimore opened at minus-10, and that seems light. I thought 13.

And based on it dropping to 8.5 in one casino and maybe everywhere, it seems the early money is decidedly on the Titans.

sara.ziegler: You guys … can I take the Vikings? Can I pull that trigger???

joshua.hermsmeyer: Do eeet.

Salfino: Sara, you have to take the Vikings. You sort of came to their defense last week after Josh and I bailed. You don’t want to reverse jinx.

sara.ziegler: OK, OK — I’m doing it.

Baltimore, Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle.

neil: Looks like you really do Like That after all.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

What The Final Week Of The NFL Season Tells Us About The Playoffs

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The NFL’s regular season finally came to a close on Sunday, with the playoff spots filled and the on-their-way-out coaches ready to be fired. But before we jump fully into the postseason, let’s talk about the games that mattered in Week 17.

The AFC had more drama for its last playoff spot, but in the end, the best team (by FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings) made it. The Tennessee Titans beat the Deshaun Watson-less Texans and grabbed that No. 6 seed. Were you guys surprised by how that all played out?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I was SO hoping the Raider parlay would work out.

It was in decent shape for a while, thanks to the Ravens’ backups.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The Raiders making the playoffs was like the old gambling tickets when you had to go 10-for-10 to win $100.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Ryan Tannehill led the league in a metric near and dear to my heart, completion percentage over expected (CPOE), so I’m thrilled and also unsurprised. There’s also no way he continues this performance much longer. Such an outlier year for him.

neil: Josh, who are you taking right now: Tannehill or Tom Brady? The battle of track record vs. recency!

joshua.hermsmeyer: WHEW, give me Brady.

Salfino: The Texans weren’t competing, so I would have been shocked if Tennessee had lost. The Titans are suddenly a very fun team with two of the most explosive offensive players in football: rushing champ Derrick Henry and, in my mind, the best offensive rookie in football, A.J. Brown, who had the most catches of 50-plus yards for a rookie WR since Randy Moss.

sara.ziegler: Can the Titans beat New England, though?

neil: Certainly the more pertinent real-world question, haha.

The Pats had the best QB Elo defense in the league this year; Tennessee was 22nd. But this has to be one of the few playoff games ever where Brady went in with an inferior QB rating beforehand.

(Especially since the opposing QB is Tannehill — not, like, Peyton Manning.)

Salfino: The danger lurking for Tannehill is that sack rate: 9.8 percent after Sunday (over 10 percent prior). That’s tied for the 30th worst this century, adjusting for league rate.

neil: And the New England D had the sixth-best sack rate of any team this season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I do think that Tennessee is not a great team for New England to have to play after just losing to the Dolphins and dropping out of a first-round bye for the first time since 2009. The Titans have had the second-best offense in the league since Week 7, when Tannehill took over starting duties.

sara.ziegler: Seems less than ideal.

And that Miami game wasn’t just some fluke result — the Dolphins were the better team.

neil: It’s particularly disturbing for Patriots fans that they lost at home, in a Week 17 game where they weren’t resting starters. Vegas had that game at Pats -17, and it ended up being the biggest upset of the season.

Salfino: Miami could not get its offense going until the fourth quarter, and then Ryan Fitzpatrick somehow beat the Patriots’ defense with a touchdown drive that actually seemed kind of easy. Not going for a score at the end of the first half says a lot about how the team views its offense now.

neil: And getting quick end-of-half scores has always kinda been the Pats’ thing.

(Well, one of their things.)

Salfino: Dolphins receiver Devante Parker just slaughtered putative Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. That was the story of the game, defensively, for New England.

I wonder how much of this was Fitz just not caring about throwing at Gilmore, as most QBs are seemingly afraid to. I don’t really believe in the shutdown corner — they’re a very rare breed. There have only been two in the last 25 years, IMO: Deion Sanders and Darrelle Revis.

sara.ziegler: I enjoyed the shots of Chiefs fans hearing the final score from the New England game — when they knew they would get the No. 2 slot. And that game was touch-and-go for a while, too!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kevin Harlan called two games at once!

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

Salfino: The Chiefs are peaking at the right time, if that’s a thing. For New England, Bill Belichick historically has ramped things up in December as a way to build postseason momentum. If that’s a model for playoff success, the Chiefs are right there with the Ravens. Their defense has suddenly emerged as a real force. But maybe it’s just a function of facing worse offenses. It seems weird that a team could transform itself so much — within a season — on one side of the ball.

neil: To that point about peaking, we have them as the second-most-likely Super Bowl winner now, at 14 percent.

(Of course, Baltimore at 46 percent remains just a massive favorite, probably more than anyone is giving them credit for.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: What were the Patriots’ chances to win the SB prior to losing to Miami, Neil?

neil: 10 percent. Now just 3 percent.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Amazing.

Salfino: Baltimore has 12 Pro Bowlers and just took out the Steelers with their backups. So I buy that 46 percent. I would not want to see the Chiefs, though, if I were the Ravens.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Elo has it right. Kansas City is going to be a lot to handle. And the Chiefs beat the mighty Ravens back in Week 3.

sara.ziegler: I’m so excited for that matchup. (If it happens.)

neil: K.C. also played a pretty difficult schedule this year. Second-hardest in terms of average opposing Elo (adjusted for location). Only team whose slate was tougher? Houston.

Salfino: Does Elo think the Chiefs’ defense is legit?

neil: Yeah, they also had the third-best pass defense in terms of limiting opposing QBs below their usual Elo. Pats and Steelers were 1-2.

Salfino: What a turnaround for them. So this is saying the Chiefs defense has a bigger impact on QB performance than the Ravens D. I’m shocked by that.

neil: The Ravens were sixth, so they’re elite as well, but their number dropped a bit in the last few weeks as Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield had solid games. (Obviously Duck Hodges is a different story.)

sara.ziegler: What about the rest of the AFC? Can the Bills or Texans make any noise?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Elo has it spot on, in my view. Basically no shot for the Bills or the Texans to make the Super Bowl.

neil: I’m probably higher mentally on the Texans than I should be because of Watson. But they really weren’t anything special for most of this year — 13th in SRS, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, and 11th in Elo.

Salfino: I do think the Bills could beat the Texans. What chance do we give Buffalo in that game?

neil: We have Houston at 65 percent, obviously in large part because they’re at home.

And it’s not like they’ve ever come out totally flat at home in a playoff game where they were favored.

Salfino: Watson has six games over 9.0 yards per attempt and five games under 6.0. I don’t think many QBs ever have been that volatile. And that doesn’t even factor in his on-again, off-again sack woes.

neil: You nailed it on Watson, Mike.

The NFL’s most inconsistent QBs of 2019

Highest standard deviation of game-to-game QB Elo performance among 2019 quarterbacks with at least five starts during the regular season

Quarterback Starts QB Elo (vs. Avg)/Game Std. Dev.
Deshaun Watson 15 +48.0 179.4
Drew Brees 11 +110.1 175.0
Marcus Mariota 6 -87.5 170.9
Russell Wilson 16 +43.2 166.6
Jameis Winston 16 -27.5 161.6
Sam Darnold 13 -43.1 148.6
Daniel Jones 12 -3.2 147.8
Ryan Fitzpatrick 13 -13.3 146.9
Matt Ryan 15 +20.6 144.6
Mason Rudolph 8 -92.6 138.3

He had the highest game-to-game standard deviation of Elo performance of any QB with at least five starts this year.

sara.ziegler: Let’s move on to the NFC, where there was less drama this weekend (looking at you, Vikings) but still some jockeying for position. Philly had its fans on pins and needles before pulling out the game against the Giants and securing a playoff spot.

And the Cowboys go home…

Salfino: I think Carson Wentz is a Russell Wilson-level magician this year. Throwing for 4,000 yards without any wide receiver getting 500 is unreal.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles are fun to root for. So many injuries all over the team.

Salfino: I joked that there was a waiting list for their blue tent yesterday, and then there actually was, according to Fox.

neil: And for the Cowboys, you had to love seeing them pile up 47 meaningless points against Washington a week after they couldn’t even muster a TD in a potential playoff clincher.

It was the most Cowboys way this Cowboys season (slash-Jason Garrett Era?) could have ended.

Salfino: I love that Wentz and Wilson, who are completely carrying their teams, are matching up in Week 18.

joshua.hermsmeyer: In a sane world with rational coaching, Seattle would be favored in that game. Perhaps heavily.

Instead we get Philly favored by 5.5.

Salfino: But Seattle is hardly impressive when you look at the more predictive stats, beyond their win-loss record. Their defense is garbage, I don’t trust their line, and they refuse to unleash Wilson right from the start of games.

joshua.hermsmeyer: All true! But I put most of that on the coaches. Did you see some of the throws Russ made last night?

sara.ziegler: And yet Wilson had only 233 yards passing on Sunday.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Criminally underutilized.

sara.ziegler: Jimmy Garoppolo had 285!

Salfino: Imagine having Wilson and giving Marshawn Lynch 12 carries off the couch.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Hey, at least Marshawn got the goal-line TD he should have been allowed to score five seasons ago.

sara.ziegler: Oooooh

🔥

neil: (He also got bottled up on a big fourth down at the end of the first half, and he averaged 2.8 yards per carry. As you might expect from a guy who hasn’t played in forever.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Was he the proximate cause for that delay of game at the end? Trying to get a play called for him?

neil: Oh, man.

Salfino: I think he was. But the weird thing about the delay is that the Seahawks were still in the huddle. They were not close to getting a play off. That is just horrible coaching.

sara.ziegler: It was really the perfect ending to that game, LOL.

Salfino: I wonder what the win probability was on first and goal from the 1 with 25 seconds left vs. second and goal from the 7. I bet a team has never bled that much win probability away without running a legitimate play (they had the spike).

Even on the spike, they should have just sneaked. Everyone was right at the line.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They lost almost 15 points of win probability on the penalty, right after gaining 56 points on the fourth-down conversion.

Salfino: The sneak is about 85 to 90 percent successful. So two sneaks beats a spike and three passes.

sara.ziegler: Ooof

Salfino: Kyle Shanahan was really let off the hook. He should have gone for it on fourth and 1 from his own 29. That defense was not stopping Wilson. And then he burns a timeout in getting a look at their formation? Like the Seahawks have plays — they just have Wilson do stuff. He needed that timeout to counter for the winning or tying field goal.

But then, enter Pete Carroll.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: Would you guys have gone on fourth and 1 inside your own 30? Seattle did not want that to happen, I guarantee it. They just wanted the ball.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the additional win probability was small, but it makes sense to try to keep Wilson off the field AND leave time on the clock for your own late drive if you do fail and the Seahawks score.

Salfino: You win the game on offense. You hope the other team doesn’t win the game on defense.

neil: OK, OK, enough about the Seahawks. Sara, I know you’re avoiding it, but we at least have to acknowledge the upcoming Vikings-Saints game. So much recent history between those two teams…

joshua.hermsmeyer: lol

Salfino: Are we still counting the bounty game?

neil: I am!

I know for a fact Sara still does.

Salfino: I don’t want to sound like Sara here, but the Vikings do not seem to have a chance.

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: How quickly your tune changes, Mike.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I have also come around to Sara’s way of thinking.

Salfino: I know. I’m ashamed of my prior pro-Vikings stance.

sara.ziegler: Hahahahaha

Salfino: I hate narratives, but Kirk Cousins really does not seem to like the spotlight.

I think playing on the road actually helps Cousins.

sara.ziegler: This is actually the kind of game that the Vikings might end up winning, since no one is giving them a chance.

(And no one should be giving them a chance, to be clear.)

neil: They should change their name to the Minnesota Contrarians.

Salfino: Look at Sara going contrarian here with a Pro-Vikings take. Love it!

sara.ziegler: That’s just how I roll.

Also, I want acknowledgement that I called the Vikings losing their last two games! (Though I did not foresee them benching everyone against the Bears, LOL.)

Salfino: While the focus is on Cousins, the big story of this game I predict is just how suspect the Minnesota secondary is. Drew Brees should eat them alive.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, it’s gonna be ugly.

We need to talk for just a second about the Packers, though. This isn’t just my pro-Vikings perspective, but they have no chance, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: They have a chance, but only because they somehow secured that bye.

neil: Only if New Orleans wins. 😉

sara.ziegler: Wow, Neil.

neil: Lol.

sara.ziegler: Rude.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not even gonna trot out a stat. Aaron Rodgers just looks horrible.

So my eye test says close-to-no chance for the Pack.

neil: I’ll do it because I can’t help myself: He’s been below average in QB Elo in four straight games and seven of his last eight. No QB fell off more down the stretch of the season than Rodgers:

Rodgers fizzled down the stretch

Biggest dropoffs in per-game QB Elo vs. average between the first and second halves of the 2019 regular season among quarterbacks with at least four starts in each half

1st Half of Season 2nd Half of Season
Quarterback Starts QB Elo (vs. Avg)/G Starts QB Elo (vs. Avg)/G Diff
Aaron Rodgers 8 +82.9 8 -33.9 -116.9
Tom Brady 8 57.9 8 -45.2 -103.2
Russell Wilson 8 93.1 8 -6.7 -99.7
Matt Ryan 7 72.2 8 -24.5 -96.6
Deshaun Watson 8 92.7 7 -3.1 -95.7
Jacoby Brissett 8 20.1 7 -68.1 -88.1
Philip Rivers 8 33.3 8 -37.4 -70.7
Gardner Minshew 7 10.4 5 -47.1 -57.5
Derek Carr 8 55.6 8 15.4 -40.2
Patrick Mahomes 7 125.8 7 93.7 -32.1

Salfino: The Packers were life and death against David Blough. Think about that.

Look at Rodgers’s yards per attempt by season since 2014. He’s been right around average or below (below this year) for five straight seasons. He’s gone from being inner-circle Hall of Fame Rodgers through 2014 to being … Alex Smith since.

sara.ziegler: So, to wrap things up, I want to get you guys on the record with your predictions — so we can rip each other later when our predictions all look terrible.

Who do you all like this weekend?

Salfino: Buffalo (my one upset if we get the bad Watson), New England, New Orleans, Philadelphia.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Houston, New England, New Orleans, Seattle for me.

neil: Houston, New England, New Orleans, Philly.

Salfino: Neil going chalk. Smart!

neil: Chalk!

sara.ziegler: And I’m taking Buffalo, Tennessee, New Orleans and Seattle.

joshua.hermsmeyer: And my hot fire take is the Philly-Seattle game will be close.

Because Seattle.

neil: That’s why Seattle will win, I guess?

sara.ziegler: No one took the Vikings. 😔

Salfino: Not even you!

If they had Case Keenum, maybe…

sara.ziegler: LOL

Hey, I’m a fan, but I’m realistic.

Salfino: Fatalistic.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

What We Learned From A Very Confusing Week 15 In The NFL

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 15 of the NFL season saw some teams clinch playoff berths while others watched their postseason hopes fall mere yards short. So let’s get into what we learned.

There’s a new No. 1 seed in the NFC, with the Seahawks jumping the Niners after San Francisco’s head-scratching loss to Atlanta. Is Seattle the team to beat in the NFC now?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I continue to be worried about Seattle’s point differential. You’d like to see the Seahawks blow out a team or two, but they seem to be built to play exclusively close games.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Seattle seems more lucky than good. They’ve won nine games by 7 points or less, tied for the most ever after 14 games. And their point differential is more befitting an 8-6 team, historically, than an 11-3 one. The Niners, conversely, have to be one of the unluckiest teams ever, now having lost two games at the final gun and another in overtime.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): That Week 17 Hawks-Niners game is gonna be good.

Salfino: The point differential difference between these teams would make the Seahawks winning the division over the Niners akin to the Pirates winning the 1960 World Series when the Yankees outscored them by about 247 runs in the Series.

sara.ziegler: I just don’t understand what happened to the Niners on Sunday.

Salfino: That game was totally on Kyle Shanahan. Maybe this is a function of coaching, and Pete Carroll deserves more credit for Seattle’s wins. Or maybe it’s pure dumb luck with a sprinkle of Russell Wilson magic.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it might not be totally on Shanahan. He was missing three key defensive backs, including Richard Sherman.

Salfino: But then why did he not go for it on fourth and 1 and instead leave the game up to his depleted pass defense vs. Julio Jones? A field goal that turns a one-score game into … a one-score game, with that much time remaining, has to be the dumbest kick in football.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, you’ll never get an argument from me there. I just wanted to point out that the secondary is depleted.

Salfino: Yes — and that puts it even more squarely on Shanahan, who, to be clear, I generally think is a very-good-to-great coach.

sara.ziegler: So who is the best team in the NFC? One of these two? Maybe the Saints? The Packers?

neil: For what it’s worth, we still have New Orleans as the NFC team most likely to win the Super Bowl (13 percent), although we’ll see what they do at home against Indy tonight.

Salfino: I can’t see the Seahawks going to New Orleans in the playoffs and winning, though — but the Saints going to Seattle, which may be what happens, seems very iffy for the Saints, too.

sara.ziegler: Hey, the Saints already went to Seattle and won — and that was with Teddy Bridgewater.

Salfino: Very good point.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

I had to get some Packers shade in there.

sara.ziegler: I approve.

I still can’t figure out this Packer team at all. They keep winning … and keep looking kinda bad while doing so.

neil: Aaron Rodgers has kinda been not-so-great recently. For a while now, actually.

In his last six starts, five have been below average, per QB Elo.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Rodgers was fourth-worst in completion percentage over expected (CPOE) this week, ahead of only Tom Brady, Josh Allen and Drew Lock.

neil: “Ahead of only Tom Brady” is not the phrase you want to use to describe yourself these days.

Salfino: The Packers are another double-digit-win team that, like Seattle, could lose to any team in the field. We keep waiting for Rodgers to explode like in years past, but it’s just not there. It’s so weird to see this team being driven by running back scoring. With 17 TDs, Aaron Jones has scored the most of any running back with fewer than 250 total touches since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

sara.ziegler: I’m still not ready to count them out, though. Whenever they have a kind-of-mediocre season, they go ahead and win the Super Bowl.

(No, I haven’t forgotten 2010.)

neil: They’re being outgained this year (5,198 to 4,713) but are still 11-3. It reminds me somewhat of 2011, when they were outgained (6,585 to 6,482) and went 15-1. (And then promptly lost to the Eli Manning Giants in the playoffs.)

sara.ziegler: Elsewhere in the conference, the teams tied atop the NFC East both won on Sunday, but the Cowboys crushed the Rams, who are still (sort of) in contention for a wild-card slot, while Philly looked lackluster in beating Washington. Is this division now the Cowboys’ to lose?

neil: I can’t decide whether this is the universe conspiring to make a Cowboys’ loss to Philly be even more of a gut punch to Jerry Jones and friends …

Salfino: I assume our model expects the Cowboys to lose in Philly, right? The Cowboys put it all together on Sunday against a quality team, I guess (could debate that description of the Rams). They seem far more dangerous than the Eagles to me. Philly made Dwayne Haskins look like a polished vet for much of Sunday’s game.

neil: Our model does indeed have Philly favored at home.

Salfino: The Eagles being life and death against two teams battling for a top draft pick does not seem like a buy signal for their playoff prospects. I bet the money moves that line to Dallas -1 by Wednesday.

neil: Worth mentioning that it’s a division clincher for Dallas if they win, but they still have a 22 percent chance if they lose. (They’d need a win and Philly loss in Week 17.)

Salfino: The Eagles have proven they could lose to anyone, anywhere.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Facts.

Although Carson Wentz has been better the past few weeks!

Salfino: But I do think we have to give Wentz credit for MacGyvering this offense somehow with such poor receivers. Their wideouts have been worse than the Patriots’ the past two weeks, and he’s somehow scoring. OK, they do have two quality tight ends.

sara.ziegler: Was anyone else kind of astonished at how the Cowboys came out against the Rams?

neil: A little bit. Although we’ve been down on the Rams most of the season, too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I wasn’t really. What has surprised me this season is their record, given how well they’ve played on offense. They’re second in EPA per play on offense. Games like Sunday should have happened more often this year.

Salfino: I’ve been sort of waiting all year for the Cowboys to have this game. But I figured there was no chance of it anymore, given that they reportedly had Dead Man Walking at head coach. Yet here we are: They played a pretty much perfect game and seem dangerous.

sara.ziegler: Right — I thought they had kind of given up on Jason Garrett. Maybe I buy into the NFL Narrative (TM) too much.

Salfino: Exactly. I hate when I buy narratives, but they are so seductive!

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

Over in the AFC, the Bills are legit, with a convincing win over the Steelers on Sunday night. Buffalo has New England in Week 16. Do the Bills need to beat the Pats to prove themselves as a contender?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills … are legit?

neil: Playoff bound!

Big deal for a team that’s only made it one other time since 1999.

sara.ziegler: They’re playing well! They even looked good against the Ravens last week!

Salfino: I have thought for weeks that they are the poor man’s Ravens. But Lamar Jackson is just so much better than Josh Allen, whether it’s him or the coaching (very likely him).

joshua.hermsmeyer: If the Bills move Allen to wide receiver, I think they might make some noise in the playoffs.

Salfino: If Allen had just been a game manager in the Bills’ last meeting with the Patriots, the Bills would have won. But this is the problem with the Bills. When he’s not turning the ball over, Allen is failing to make basic NFL throws. He’s a high-variance QB and actually, I believe, a bad fit for a team like this. (In fairness, Allen was knocked out of that game early after being hit in the head, but not before he threw three picks.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: But a completion percentage 14 percentage points below expected in Week 15 is Not Great.

Salfino: Seriously, the Bills would be better off trying to have Allen run for 75 yards per game.

But Allen is more of a power runner like Cam Newton than a gifted runner like Jackson. So maybe his injury risk with this volume is too great.

sara.ziegler: So … will the Bills beat the Pats?

Salfino: Nope.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nah.

Our model has the game at 68 percent for the Pats.

sara.ziegler: NO ONE wants to take a flier on the Bills? 😔

neil: I will say this: That’s the lowest win prob the Pats have had at home against the Bills since Matt Cassel was starting for New England.

The Pats look vulnerable at home … by Pats-Bills standards

Starting quarterbacks, Elo ratings and pregame win probabilities for the last 12 Patriots home games against the Bills, 2008-19

Patriots Bills
Date Starter QB Adj. Effective Elo Starter QB Adj. Effective Elo NE Win% NE Won?
12/21/2019 Brady -28 1645 Allen +11 1572 68% ???
12/23/2018 Brady +2 1626 Allen +49 1418 82
12/24/2017 Brady -8 1694 Taylor +10 1509 80
10/2/2016 Brissett -52 1593 Taylor +2 1505 70
11/23/2015 Brady +20 1733 Taylor -27 1523 80
12/28/2014 Brady +12 1739 Orton +13 1513 84
12/29/2013 Brady -4 1669 Lewis -59 1398 87
11/11/2012 Brady +17 1702 Fitzpatrick +6 1465 86
1/1/2012 Brady +20 1736 Fitzpatrick 0 1399 91
9/26/2010 Brady +8 1558 Fitzpatrick +5 1387 79
9/14/2009 Brady +22 1663 Edwards +3 1470 81
11/9/2008 Cassel -125 1555 Edwards +3 1483 68

Salfino: The Patriots are another team that’s probably going to have a first-seed-level record (13-3?) that also could lose to anyone. We don’t even note another bad game from Brady (by Brady standards) anymore. It’s expected. Even against the Bengals. The difference is that even the-circus-has-left-town Brady isn’t going to lose his team a game. Allen will.

sara.ziegler: The AFC South is clearer now after Houston beat Tennessee. Tennessee isn’t out of it, given that these teams play again in two weeks (seriously, schedulers?), but the Titans’ road is much harder. What are their chances of getting into the playoffs at all?

Salfino: Ryan Tannehill sort of regressed into being Ryan Tannehill at the worst possible time. I think the Jets beat the Steelers and both teams in the South make the playoffs.

sara.ziegler: Ooooh, 🔥 prediction.

Salfino: Is that even a hot take though? Duck Dodgers is TERRIBLE.

(I mean “Hodges,” but I can’t get the cartoon out of my head when I hear his name.)

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

neil:

Salfino: Seriously, what’s the Jets’ win probability, Neil?

neil: It’s 46 percent! Pretty good by Jets standards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Duck’s QBR over the past three weeks is only slightly worse than Tom Brady’s. Terrible indeed.

sara.ziegler: Ouch.

Salfino: The Brady passive-aggressive takes are fire.

neil: Among the dregs of the AFC playoff picture — that is, the teams fighting for that sixth spot — Tennessee (1576 Elo) is the only one our ratings even thinks is above average.

It would kind of be tragic if a team as bad as Pitt or Indy (Cleveland? Oakland?? LOL) makes it over the Titans.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Titans are a fun team to watch, and they have an entertaining coach. I hope they make the playoffs as well.

Salfino: A.J. Brown: 2020 Fantasy Football League Winner. Just got him at 4-1 in a mock draft. That dude looks like the cartoon receivers with superhero bodies in the old “NFL Blitz.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: Great comp. He’s good D.K. Metcalf.

Salfino:

neil: (Love that the Dreamcast makes an appearance in our chat, btw.)

Salfino: It was worth every dollar!

neil: The Kirk Cousins of consoles.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I saw a clip on Twitter where Derrius Guice didn’t think NFL 2K existed. SMH, millennials.

neil: Oh, no. He lives in a Madden-only reality?

😬

sara.ziegler: I look away for two minutes and this is where this chat went?

Amazing.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

He gave Adam some side eye.

neil: SMH

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

What Did We Learn About The Contenders In The NFL’s Week 13?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 13 had a little bit of everything: matchups between division leaders, out-of-nowhere upsets and yet another Chargers heartbreaker. A kicker caught a touchdown … thrown by a punter! What more could we ask for?

Let’s start with the biggest surprise of the week for me: Philadelphia, which could have jumped back into a tie for the NFC East lead with a win, marched down to Miami and gave up 37 points to Ryan Fitzpatrick and Co.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Philly was befuddled by the muddle huddle.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I always kick myself when I assume a team has completely transformed a unit in-season. I did buy the narrative that the Eagles had improved their pass defense immeasurably relative to their early-season woes. But this team was always weakest in the defensive backfield, so even getting guys back did not fix the problem, obviously, as Fitzpatrick — who has now played the Eagles seven times with seven different teams — just tore them apart.

gfoster (Geoff Foster, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Some smart NFL people predicted the Eagles to win the NFC this year based on the talent on their roster, which is one of the most expensive in the league. I think earlier this season it was easy to write off these losses because of their injuries at receiver and all over their defense. But now, is it time to admit that this team is just not that good?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure what to make of the Eagles from top to bottom this season. They just gave a five-year, $21.8 million contract to Jake Elliott at the most replaceable position in football outside running back.

sara.ziegler: Sure, you laugh at a huge kicker contract, until you’re the Cowboys holding kicker tryouts on a December Sunday…

gfoster: Look at what Fitzpatrick did to this defense:

Salfino: They seemed to have the depth to be fortified against typical in-season problems. But I think we found out that even the starters were not that good. And nothing has really held up through in-season attrition. Even their coaching has not responded. Can you imagine being beaten by gadget plays now three straight games? It’s just embarrassing.

sara.ziegler: Fitzpatrick isn’t that bad! He’s almost league average in our QB ratings.

That makes what Miami is doing this year all the more confusing.

gfoster: This is the closing argument in the case that NFL tanking doesn’t exist. If the Dolphins really wanted Joe Burrow or Chase Young or whomever in the draft, they would simply play Josh Rosen at quarterback. But with Fitzmagic in there, they are going to get games like this from him, and they will win more.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I still contend that tanking did exist … but maybe the spotlight on their supposed tanking caused them to stop.

I think the pressure got to them!

sara.ziegler: There’s also the argument that Miami is just bad at tanking.

Salfino: It’s like “The Producers.” If you’re trying to be terrible, it’s actually not that easy.

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

gfoster: To clarify: I think you can tank in the NFL. But you can only do it by purposefully playing a lesser QB. Like, say, Ryan Finley over Andy Dalton.

Salfino: But what’s the carrot for tanking? It’s one starter out of 22, and we don’t even know if that guy ever is really the best player.

If it’s just about compiling draft capital, then it’s more binary — be bad, it doesn’t matter if you’re the worst or not.

joshua.hermsmeyer: So the Bengals have a one-game lead on the New York Giants for the first overall pick. You have to think Cincinnati takes Burrow if they lose out. But an interesting question is: If the Giants get the first overall, do they take Burrow or trade down?

Salfino: Geoff, they’re just trying to make us feel better about the Jets….

sara.ziegler: There’s no way to feel better about the Jets today.

gfoster: I think they would try to trade down, and if that didn’t work, then they would just take Chase Young at No. 1 and not feel too bad about it.

Salfino: I will eat 1,000 bugs if the Giants draft Burrow. Plus, Burrow is old for a prospect. I have low confidence with all QB prospects translating as expected but even lower with older prospects. Burrow should be dominating just based on his age.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it would be pretty funny if Giants GM Dave Gettleman didn’t trade back and take the profits, just to be stubborn.

Salfino: I would just take Young, period. No matter what team I was.

Will Burrow get more draft capital in return than Young? I’m uncertain about that. And there are going to be a lot of veteran QBs on the market that teams think they can rehab. It will be like musical chairs.

gfoster: Burrow can join a long line of LSU QBs to dominate the NFL, names like … JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, Zach Mettenberger.

sara.ziegler: Hey, Flynn was a dominant backup.

Salfino: You can never take away Flynn’s six-TD game. He monetized that sucker.

gfoster: Here’s the thing about the Bengals win: It wasn’t that big of an upset. They were only 2.5-point dogs. No team in the NFL is that bad. Also, the Jets are deeply weird. I follow this team closely, and I still don’t understand them.

sara.ziegler: Please, yes, the “this loss was fine” take.

Salfino: Ha ha ha

joshua.hermsmeyer: Apparently, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Jets are the first team to lose to teams that were 0-7 or worse coming into a game. That’s a weird way to say you gave the Dolphins and Bengals their first wins, but there we are.

Salfino: The Jets did not have a red zone snap against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Not a snap!

I’m not sure the Jets could beat the 1976 Buccaneers right now.

gfoster: The second I heard Dalton was starting, I knew the Jets had no chance. I knew he was going to come back motivated and looking to polish a resume. Also, he passed Ken Anderson for most TD passes in Cincy history. Which is funny, because does that mean that the Bengals were going to sit to him the rest of the year when he was one shy of that record?

Salfino: Benching Dalton was all an elaborate scheme to preserve the memory of Ken Anderson.

gfoster: Dalton is going to be really solid on the 2020 Bears.

sara.ziegler: OMG

joshua.hermsmeyer: Geoff has seen the future, and it’s bleak.

sara.ziegler: That’s the future I want.

Salfino: Dalton is one of those vets that teams are going to turn to this offseason: Dalton, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston … (Though maybe he stays now?)

sara.ziegler: It’s always so weird when the up-and-comers become the has-beens.

gfoster: Ryan Tannehill is NOT making Mariota look good in Tennessee.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Winston’s highs are too high to let him go, I think.

Salfino: But Winston is what he is now though. That’s never going to be good enough. He’s not going to stop throwing picks and getting sacked.

joshua.hermsmeyer: But if all you do is try and avoid interceptions, you end up being discount Aaron Rodgers, post 2015.

Salfino: I agree that there’s an ideal INT rate, and it ain’t 0 percent. But Winston makes too many mistakes, period.

joshua.hermsmeyer: What happened to loving the gunslinger, Salfino?

Salfino: No gunslinging on first downs and in the red zone.

sara.ziegler: Words to live by.

joshua.hermsmeyer: This disrespect of the Joe Namath archetype is why the Jets lost, tbh.

Salfino: Namath’s INT rate in his AFL heyday was below average for his time, BTW.

Back to Tannehill: He’s been sacked 24 times in 200 pass plays, which is ABSURDLY bad. He is proof again that sacks are mostly a QB stat. Put him anywhere, and he’ll be dumped at a double-digit rate. Jameis has this flaw of holding the ball too long, too.

gfoster: Tannehill is leading the league in yards per attempt. And Derrick Henry is now Jim Brown, apparently.

What is happening?

sara.ziegler: The Titans have won their last three games and now have a very real chance to make the playoffs — up to 42 percent in our model.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Between Tannehill and Lamar Jackson, I think the league is figuring out the secret to success at QB is to play your WR there. (Tannehill was a WR in college, and some scouts thought Lamar would only be successful in the NFL as a WR.)

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Speaking of Lamar … the Baltimore-San Francisco game was wildly entertaining. These two teams are just really fun to watch right now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It helps when you have way more offensive plays to watch because neither team is punting.

Salfino: Both teams were just running the ball up and down the field. It’s so weird that this is where we are with the two best teams in football now.

gfoster: There were only seven drives in the second half of that game. And they resulted in two field goals, two punts, two turnovers on downs and a fumble.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Killjoy

sara.ziegler: That game-ending drive by the Ravens was a thing of beauty, though. Six minutes and 30 seconds to win the game on a field goal? Love it.

gfoster: It feels like the Ravens’ break-in-case-of-emergency plan is to just give designed runs to Lamar. AKA, play like the 2018 Ravens.

Also, Josh, kicker may be the most replaceable position in the NFL. But Baltimore having Justin Tucker in the playoffs is a clear edge.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Bill Belichick said he’s the best to ever do it. So I won’t argue it.

Salfino: Oh, man. You just knew Tucker was making that, even in those conditions. That dude is just unreal.

Geoff, didn’t you lose a playoff game in fantasy when Tucker kicked 137 field goals? 🙂

gfoster: I may have.

Salfino: It was one of those 99 percent win probability losses.

sara.ziegler: I’ll take Tucker at the end of an important game … but maybe not in a press conference.

joshua.hermsmeyer: **leaves chat**

Salfino: Kickers can’t be the cool kids. They’re the rock critics of football.

sara.ziegler: LOL

The other great matchup of the weekend that I wanted to talk about was the Patriots-Texans game on Sunday Night Football.

Salfino: Tom Brady RIP.

sara.ziegler: I live for the “Tom Brady is done” takes.

Salfino: Brady is someone who occasionally evokes Tom Brady now. But Belichick has let him down with his supporting cast of receivers. How big a bust must N’Keal Harry be if he can’t even get on the field ahead of this motley crew?

Does this change our opinion on the Texans? It’s weird that no one seems to have done so, with what — on paper — is a signature win for them.

sara.ziegler: The Texans are hard for me to figure out. They were so thoroughly dismantled by the Ravens that I have a hard time understanding where they fit in the echelon of good-but-not-great teams.

gfoster: This news for the Texans is huge, if it’s true:

sara.ziegler: Whoa, hadn’t seen that about J.J. Watt.

Salfino: Deshaun Watson had a great game. If he plays within structure like that and sprinkles in the occasional Watson things, they can overcome Bill O’Brien’s coaching. I think. At least until they play the Ravens.

gfoster: The funniest thing about the NFL is how scared everyone is to write the “Patriots Are Done” stories. We have all experienced this too many times.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve seen a take floating around that it was Gronk’s greatness that was keeping Brady afloat all these years, and perhaps there’s something to it.

Salfino: Well, Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon were intermediate/deep receivers, and now that guy for the Patriots is ?????

The Patriots can win still like the 2015 Broncos did with the Ghost of Peyton Manning.

sara.ziegler: The Patriots can still win like the 2003 Patriots did!

Salfino: 🙂

gfoster: I think the lack of weapons on the outside is real. The running game is also way, way worse this year. Brady’s whole game is about being in sync with his receivers and having them be in the right spot at the right time, and you can tell that they are not in sync at the moment. But give Josh McDaniels and them a bye in the playoffs to work on some stuff, and no one will be surprised to see them fix these problems.

sara.ziegler: Brady screaming at his receivers on the sidelines doesn’t fix everything?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s a toxic relationship right now.

Salfino: But I think it’s more than “outside,” though maybe that’s a proxy of having no one who can remotely stretch the field. Gronk stretched it from the slot in the seam. But yes, they are woefully deficient at a position that should not be hard to fill.

As to Sara’s point, a QB has to be loved or feared, and Brady has always been way more feared than loved. So it’s in character for him. It’s worked.

gfoster: I think that actually COULD help things, Sara. You are telling me Jakobi Meyers and Harry aren’t spending more time in the film room this week to avoid another Brady scolding on national TV? Everyone in that organization seems to buy in to the system or get discarded.

sara.ziegler: Fair — I felt bad for those guys, and they weren’t even on the screen!

Salfino: The Patriots for sure know that QBs are not really part of the team, they are above the team. Brady is just a coach proxy on the field. Probably ahead of most of the coaches, too.

sara.ziegler: I will believe the Patriots are out of it when both Belichick and Brady are sitting on a beach somewhere while NFL games are being played, and not a moment before.

Salfino: There’s a report that the Patriots players are lobbying to bring Antonio Brown back.

But then Brown seemed to destroy the possibility.

gfoster: “Patriots players are lobbying to bring Antonio Brown” — according to reports from Antonio Brown.

Salfino: Brown is a 7-Eleven PR nightmare. Open all night.

gfoster: There’s only one person who can save the Patriots offense now:

joshua.hermsmeyer: 👏

Check out our latest NFL predictions.